February 28, 2010

Taking Care of Business

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Newman Nation embraced the hugely successful class of 2010 for one last weekend. The eight seniors on the basketball team rewarded their fans with two final exciting victories at home. The Red (25-4, 11-1 Ivy) used dominant defensive efforts to take down Princeton (17-8, 8-3 Ivy) and Penn (5-20, 4-7 Ivy) and secure at least a share of a third-straight Ivy League championship.

Saturday night’s game featured just as much emotion, but for very different reasons. The senior class –– led by Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale –– played its final home game at Cornell in front of 4,473 very supportive fans. Each of the team’s eight seniors was honored before the game. Those seniors –– with help from sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski, among others –– proceeded to dismantle the Quakers and earn a 68-48 victory over the only Ivy team that has beaten the Red this season.

“Without question, [the senior] class has done more to this program than has ever been done in the history of this program,” Donahue said. “I’m extremely proud of that class for what they’ve done. They should be proud.”

The whole team should be proud of the way it played defense Friday against Princeton. The Red forced turnovers on three of Princeton’s first four possessions and never looked back. Princeton managed just 47 points on 38 percent shooting for the game. Wroblewski and senior guard Geoff Reeves combined to limit Princeton’s top scorer –– sophomore guard Doug Davis –– to just four points on 2-of-12 shooting.

“Geoff Reeves really bothered him [Davis] with his length and his energy,” Donahue said.

Princeton’s defense on Cornell was equally stingy. The Red averages 74.5 points and 9.4 3- pointers per game, but was held to 50 and two, respectively, by the Tigers. For the past two seasons, Princeton has played at a methodical pace and relied on its suffocating defense. Friday’s game was no different.

“It was a hard-fought basketball game where neither team wanted to give an inch,” Donahue said. “I thought [Princeton] played hard as heck. There were times where we thought we had the knockout punch but just couldn’t do it.”

The Tigers contained most of Cornell’s offensive threats; however, the one player the Tigers could not stop was center Jeff Foote. Foote scored 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first half and finished with a game-high 19 points.

“I was just real confident. I felt like I had a little bit of an advantage down low,” Foote said. “I kind of knew [Princeton’s] defensive tendencies and I was just able to go to my stuff.”

The game was eerily reminiscent of the previous meeting between the two teams this season. In that game, Cornell prevailed, 48-44, in New Jersey. Both games were disciplined, physical battles dominated by defense.

“You’ve got to embrace the style and I think that’s what we did,” Donahue said. “We said ‘Hey, this is the way it’s going to be. Let’s go dive on the floor, let’s grind it out, let’s get to the foul line, let’s do whatever we can.’ I give [Princeton] a whole lot of credit. They force you to play that way and you’ve got to do the best you can to play through it.”

The Red certainly did a good job of getting to the foul line. Fifteen of Cornell’s final 19 points in the game came at the charity stripe. The Red made 13 of its last 14 attempts, including two after Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson was whistled for a technical foul. Dale also scored three of his four points when he knocked down all three free throws after being fouled on a shot from behind the arc.

Dale’s free throws gave Cornell a five-point lead with just over two minutes remaining. Princeton scored the next four points to get within a point with four seconds remaining. The Red quickly got the ball to Wittman, who was fouled with two seconds remaining and proceeded to sink both free throws. Princeton’s Dan Mavraides –– who led his team with 13 points in the game –– launched a shot from midcourt at the buzzer which would have sent the game into overtime, but fell well short of the hoop.

Cornell’s tough defense carried over to Saturday’s matchup against Penn. Penn’s first six possessions of the game resulted in three turnovers and three contested jump shots, none of which found the net. Meanwhile, Dale and senior Andre Wilkins –– who was part of an all-senior starting five –– took charge of the game for the Red. Wilkins made two steals, hit a jump shot and tipped back his own missed layup in the opening minutes.

“Coach D [Donahue] always talked about bringing energy and passion,” Wilkins said. “I just took what he taught me and just threw it on the court and it worked out.”

Dale followed up a subpar game against Princeton with a strong first half versus Penn. The senior guard scored 11 points in the opening eight minutes to set the tone for the Red. He hit from behind the long line three times during that stretch.

Penn, which stunned then-ranked Cornell two weekends ago, stayed within striking distance for much of the first half, but the Quakers fell apart when sophomore guard Zack Rosen had to go to the bench with three first half fouls. Without Rosen, the Quakers were left without a true point guard and their offense sputtered. During one eight-minute stretch in the first half, Penn managed two points and seven turnovers. The Quakers finished the game with 21 turnovers.

“This was a solid defensive effort,” Donahue said of his team. “I think it obviously helps when Rosen gets in foul trouble in the first half. I just think he’s played as good as any guard in this league this year for sure, if not for a couple years.”

Rosen played just 28 minutes because of foul trouble, but still managed to score 23 of his team’s 48 points. Wittman led Cornell with 18 points and a career-high six steals. He put the game out of reach by scoring 12 points during a span of just over five minutes early in the second half.

With the win, the Red clinched at least a share of the conference title, which the team can win outright with a win in either of its games next weekend. The team also exacted revenge over the only Ivy team it has lost to this season.

“That was my reason for getting up this morning,” Wilkins said of getting revenge against Penn. “I was just like, ‘we gotta beat Penn.’ They came in here thinking they were gonna do the same thing they kinda did [before]. I was just like ‘we’re gonna let it be known, you’re good, but we’re just a tier better.’”

Original Author: Zack Slabotsky